Testing the Spirits

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

May 7, 2017

Text:  I John 4:1

Old Testament: I Samuel 13:22-29

Psalm 22

New Testament:  I John 4:1-22


                Now is the time of the Scottish Reformation.  On May 2, 1559, John Knox returned to Scotland from exile in France.  He landed at Leith and spent this day in Edinburgh.  He proceeded north to Dundee, where Paul Methven’s preaching had reformed the city.  From Dundee, Knox followed the River Tay west to Perthshire.

                Perthshire was the heart of Scotland from the Picts until the Reformation.  Here the great Scottish kings were coronated on the Stone of Destiny at Scone.   On this great hill Scottish royalty was crowned since Kenneth MacAlpin in the ninth century.  From Macbeth, to Robert the Bruce’s coronation in 1306, to Charles II, 38 Scottish kings mounted the royal throne at Scone Abbey.  Scone stands above the River Tay, just a little over two miles north of Perth. 

When Knox entered Perth, Scone Abbey had stood for 400 years.  Scone had been the site of several monasteries until Alexander I built the abbey during the Crusades.  In Scone Abbey, Scotland’s Parliament had met.  Despite its ancient significance, the Abbey symbolized the corruption to pure Christian faith sought by the Reformers.  It was known as the “Palace of the Abbots.”

Around Perth, the scent of Church bishops mingled with the odor of royal rerogative in the fragrance of absolute rule.  Religious dissent had no place for the Church and Crown in Scotland.

Perth was where James Resby was burned at the stake in 1407 for following the reformer John Wycliffe.  In 1544, the Archbishop of Saint Andrews, David Beaton, put to death four men in Perth, a mother, and her baby for their Protestant heresy. 

The spirit of reformation swirled through Perthshire.  Remembering the martyrs incensed Perth’s people.  They had witnessed the Church and Crown’s corruption first-hand.  Jesus would never have condoned what had been done in his name there.  They yearned for accountability to Jesus Christ. 

In Perth stood three monasteries – the Observant Franciscans or Grey Friars; the Dominicans known as the Black Friars; and the Carmalites, or White Friars. The Charterhouse of the Carthusian Order stood just west of the city.  It was the finest monastic building in Scotland.   Inside its walls lay the royal tomb of Scotland’s King James I and his wife, as well as Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor.

All four monasteries, as well as the Palace of the Abbots, were predestined for destruction.  Over a year prior to Knox’s return to Scotland, a mysterious order was nailed on every friary door across the land.  Its author was the “Blind, crooked, bedridden, widows, orphans and all other pure who by the hand of God may not work.”  It was known as “The Beggars’ Summons.”

“The Beggars’ Summons” demanded that friars voluntarily turn over the friaries to the poor for care in order to correct past wrongs.  If they failed to do so, the spirit of God’s reformation of the Church would finish the task.

                Knox arrived at Perth, on Wednesday afternoon of, May 10.  He conferred with the Carthusians in the Charterhouse that night about “The Beggars’ Summons” to no avail.   The next morning the city was on edge.   Knox entered the Parish Church of St. John’s in Perth.  He preached the spirit of Church reform.

                Knox vehemently attacked idolatry that morning.  He admitted, “I know that in the Mass has not only been esteemed great holiness and honoring of God, but also the ground and foundation of our religion. . . . In the opinion of many – if the Mass is taken away there rests no true worshipping nor honoring of God in the earth.”

                After that admission, Knox cited Scripture to preach that “All worshipping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without [God’s] own express commandment, is idolatry.” 

                Worship can look like God’s work.  Knox complained what Christ had done long ago in the Last Supper had been altered.   These changes did not represent obedience to Jesus Christ.  Yet the Church and Crown in Scotland failed to find merit in his argument.  Furthermore, the Crown was stepping beyond its biblical role to define worship.  Scripture did not support the extension of royal power.

                Knox cited I Samuel 13, recounting Samuel’s confrontation with King Saul.  “You have become foolish.  You have not observed the Lord’s precepts, which He commanded you.  Truly the Lord had prepared to have established your kingdom over Israel forever.  But now your kingdom shall not continue.”

                Knox declared that Saul had not obeyed the separation between earthly and spiritual rule.  Saul had violated God’s command.  He had assumed inappropriate spiritual leadership as an earthly ruler by offering sacrifices to God. 

Knox saw parallels with Saul’s disobedience to God and the Queen Regents’ duplicitous declaration a few weeks before that reforming ministers were guilty of treason and common criminals.  She had put reforming priests to the “horn.”  She had betrayed both her and their spiritual accountability to God’s Word.

                Knox turned to I Samuel 15, where King Saul complained he had not disobeyed God.  Samuel said God saw it differently.  Knox concluded, “No sin is more odious in God’s presence than to disobey His voice. . . Disobeying His voice is idolatry.”    

Knox claimed, “When of good zeal or good intent a man does anything to honor or service God not commanded by the express Word of God,” that good intention is disobedient to God and idolatrous.

                Knox cited from the Pope’s Chronicles the story of Pope Gregory the First “devis[ing] a new honoring of God, the invocation of saints called the Litany . . . In the same hour when the Litany was first received in open procession, four score of the principal men that recited the [Litany] were stricken horribly with the plague of God to death – all in one hour.”  Knox saw this as evidence of idolatry.

                For two hours Knox preached against idolatry.  Idolatry was infecting Church and Crown.  It was the bane of those who yearned to obey God’s Word.  

Noon approached.  The service concluded.  Knox stepped down.  The crowd began leaving.  Then St. John’s parish priest came out to open the tabernacle on the high altar to say Mass.  Knox had just declared the Mass idolatry.

                A teenager believed the priest was disregarding God’s Word.  The lad threw a stone which broke an image – perhaps a statue of Peter.  Immediately, the crowd of worshippers joined.  Stones were heaved throughout the sanctuary – at statues, stained glass windows, the altar.  Every image was destroyed.

                The boiling crowd swept from St. John’s sanctuary into Perth’s streets.  Townspeople joined them despite civil authorities’ efforts to quell the rioters. To the monasteries they went.  The Black, Grey, and White friars were driven off. 

                Anything of value in the friaries– silver, gold, linens, bedding, furniture – was given to the poor.  Carpenters tore off the monasteries’ roofs.  Masons dismantled their stone walls.  At the end of two days, all three friaries were leveled to the ground.  The protest continued to the Charterhouse and spread to Scone Abbey.  Both monasteries were leveled.

                From Perth the spirit of reform swept through Scotland in a path of destruction.  God’s Word alone determines Church life and worship.  God’s Word alone directs the worship of a faithful nation.

Scotland had examined the spirit of John Knox’s May 11 protest against idolatry.  The Scots concluded God’s Word had spoken.  God was reforming the Church and Crown.


                We are gathered 458 years later to consider God’s spirit of reform today.

                There is no thought of idolatry as Knox defined it among Protestants today.  In a few moments will be moved by John Newton’s hymn to praise Almighty God, Amazing Grace.    The lyrics are not in the Psalms of God’s Word. Knox would have declared such a hymn to be a creation of man and condemned it as idolatrous. 

Idolatry is not on the minds of Presbyterian clergy and presbyters who meet ecumenically with Cardinals, bishops and priests of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Churches in gratitude for our common unity in Jesus Christ. We confess as one Christ as head of the Church these days.  The Mass is different form of praise for Jesus Christ. 

Yet the challenge of idolatry continues.

Throughout our land the spirit of discontent swirls.  It’s not defined as idolatry.  But what is it?  Is that spirit of discontent from God?  We’ve seen in our lifetime good deed doers die.  But were they martyrs obeying God’s Word? 

We have seen the spirit of righteousness stir up youth, men, and women to the streets.  Is their righteousness from God or from their own passion for political change?   We have seen vicious remarks made about the personal motives of candidates running for public office.

                We have seen lawsuits made against Protestant and Catholic Churches, and personally leveled against Christians for practicing their faithfulness to Jesus Christ in ways that plaintiffs claim is offensive.  We have seen communions and congregations torn apart by claims of heresy.  This is the spirit of our times.

True Protestants to the public status quo seek reform by the Spirit that’s faithful to God’s Word.   They seek wisdom beyond civil courts to discern law and justice that’s obedient to God’s Word.  They call for reform from God’s Word that compels a re-examination of the reasons for our social unrest. 

God’s Word is the Presbyterian standard by which to measure the spirit of discontent in their time. Regardless of the good intentions behind justice that’s pragmatic for keeping peace, the people’s will is not the same as God’s will.  His Word separates what we want for ourselves from what God wants for all people.

                People knowing the difference between God’s will and human will are the true descendants of Scotland’s Kirk four and a half centuries after Knox.  They confess faith from God’s Word in a culture that disowns its biblical inheritance.

Today, America is a people relying on nine mortals to determine justice.  They are the high priests of modern life.  From their studied view of secular righteousness, public life is deemed legal or illegal.  Their decision-making process is void of biblical examination.  For Knox, this would be considered idolatry.   

Examining righteousness and justice according to God’s Word is not an official part of their deliberations.  The result is public life’s civic mores too often represent freedom from, not obedience to God’s Word.  These are the implications of Church/state separation Knox called for in Perth, Scotland.

                We publicly assess the court’s supreme decisions without asking whether they reflect obedience to God.  Church leaders’ voices are muffled by public opinion venerating the secular.  Sanctuaries of secularity dominate the land.  And the original claim of idolatry made in a Perth pulpit is lost in the pages of history.

Human will is Lord of the conscience in our age.  This is the result of an electoral process that is to represent the will of the people.  God is but a matter of private opinion stripped from social implications – except for those who in the spirit of Scottish reform consider the terms of God’s covenant for national life.

                The Scottish Reformation demanded Church and government represent the God who loves the world in Jesus Christ.  The Reformers measured Church and Crown by whether they represented God’s love for His covenant people.  They did not see the vicious suppression of religious dissent as obeying God.  It was idolatry.  The legal suppression of Christians seeking to be faithful to Jesus Christ was simply for the benefit of those in power, not obeying Jesus Christ.

                God’s Spirit seeks His people’s submission to Christ’s will for the Church.  Jesus Christ’s teachings inspired Scottish reform.  Scotland’s people demanded God’s Word truly preached.  Through religious reform they sought social and political reform.  God would be glorified through the service of Church and government leaders to Jesus Christ.

Scottish martyrs cry to us from the Kingdom of Heaven.  They are watching how we respond to the discontent of our times. God’s will is not the same as human will.  God’s Word claims all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.   Social unrest can represent the voice of the sinful who want freedom from God’s Word just as it can represent God’s will for a faithful people. 

It is up to us to discern which is which.  We are being called to test the spirits of our times by God’s Word.  God’s Word is the measurement of obedience, not only for individuals but for nations and the Church. 

God’s Word is His voice calling us to confess Jesus Christ as Lord of our conscience in God’s spirit of reform.  God’s Spirit calls us – beware of idolatry in our age.  Test the spirits by God’s Word!     


[i] The sermon used for this service was preached by John Knox in 1550, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass Is Idolatry.”  This sermon is from Selected Writings of John Knox: Public Epistles, Treatises, and Expositions to the Year 1559.  Some Scripture references and themes from that sermon have been drawn upon to explain Knox’s understanding of idolatry that provided the background for what he preached on May 11, 1559 at St. John’s Church in Perth.